Monday, October 02, 2006

The Drivers of Happy Agency-Client Relationships

The famed author, Peter Drucker noted that "the only profit center is the customer." Studies show that it costs between five and six times more to attract a new client than it does to keep an existing one. Think about that! That means that the longer you keep the right client, the more profitable your business is likely to be. The big question, therefore, is what does it take to keep them?

As you recall, last week I wrote about the right questions we need to ask clients to find out about their satisfaction with our work. Today I am focusing on the drivers of a happy agency-client relationship. At the panel I moderated for PRSA-NY, the three panelists who addressed that issue included Michael Bulger, Director of Public Relations for Booz Allen Hamilton; Paul Ewing, Director/Team Leader of U.S. pharmaceuticals for Pfizer where he heads up the communications group and Harvey Greisman, Group Executive, Worldwide Communications, for MasterCard Worldwide.

"What is the single most important factor in terms of your satisfaction level with your agency?" I asked each. Here are their answers:
  • Chemistry

  • Execution

  • Being challenged ... and results achieved
Big surprise! It all boils down to "being one with the client" ... seeing the world through the client's eyes but with an independent perspective and delivering the results they may not even have known they wanted (exceeding expectations) ... before we're asked.

Michael, Paul and Harvey provided a number of other useful insights into how to delight a client:
  • Think like the client. That means understanding the client's client and knowing his/her politics and priorities.
  • Learn how the client wants to measure success and what they anticipate in terms of ROI (Return on Investment).

  • If you are not clear, ask questions ... no matter how dumb you may think you appear.

  • Tell the client what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.

  • Deliver solutions: It can set you apart.

  • Get results which positively impact the client's business and drive their competitors crazy.

  • Understand the client's industry so well that you can make suggestions that the client wouldn't have thought of.

  • Find ways to sustain the "new assignment" attitude. Complacency can easily set in in long-term relationships, so it pays to look at what you are doing with fresh eyes.

  • Make an investment in the client, in terms of both passion and dollars. Clients like to see that their agency's commitment to their success matches their own.

  • Deliver the expertise of the agency's senior staff ... but ensure that every single piece of work is as good as if the most senior level employee had completed it.

  • Admit mistakes. Clients understand that people are imperfect.
At the conclusion of our panel discussion, I noted observations about client satisfaction attributed to Stew Leonard, founder of one of the most successful food stores in the nation:
  • Rule # 1: The customer is always right.

  • Rule #2: If the customer is wrong, go back to Rule #1.
I asked the panelists if they agreed with that assertion.

Interestingly, there was consensus that the customer is not ALWAYS right. In fact, they said that clients rely on their agencies to be strong enough to challenge them. The best relationships -- the happiest ones -— are those that create an environment in which both sides are comfortable having frank conversations with each other.

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